Stores in Contra Costa County regularly carry and promote harmful products such as candy-flavored tobacco products, sweetened alcoholic drinks and sugary beverages designed to appeal to youth, according to data from a new statewide survey released today.
The survey showed that eight in 10 stores near schools in Contra Costa sell non-cigarette tobacco products with youth-friendly flavors like watermelon, tropical blast and cherry limeade. In addition, many flavored cigarillos and little cigars sell for under $1, making them attractive and affordable to youth, said Dr. Wendel Brunner, director of Contra Costa Public Health.
“We have flavored cigarillos being sold three for one dollar across the street from a high school” Dr. Brunner said. “I don’t think there can be any doubt that these products are being targeted at kids. The candy flavoring makes the tobacco more palatable to a new smoker, and the price is right for youth without a lot of money to spend.”
The survey data was released by health advocates today at a series of regional press events throughout California to mark the launch of Healthy Stores for a Healthy Community, a statewide campaign to improve the health of Californians by informing them about the impacts of unhealthy product marketing in the retail environment. The campaign is a collaboration of public health departments in California, nonprofits and community groups.
The extensive survey collected information from more than 7,300 diverse retail stores in California that sell tobacco – including 226 convenience, supermarket, liquor, tobacco, small market, discount, drug and big-box stores in Contra Costa – with the goal of shedding light on what products are available and promoted in our communities.
Nearly 700 public health representatives, community volunteers and youth participated in the survey throughout the state, which was conducted from July through October 2013.
According to the survey data, seven in 10 stores in Contra Costa have exterior advertising for unhealthy products like tobacco, sugary drinks and alcohol. Nearly 85% of stores that sell alcohol sold “alcopops,” sweetened alcoholic drinks available in single bottles or cans that often resemble energy drinks popular with youth. While sweet, alcopops are potent and dangerous — one 24-ounce can contain as much alcohol as four or more standard drinks.
“There’s a perception that alcopops are less harmful than other alcoholic beverages, which is absolutely not true,” said Haven Fearn, director of Contra Costa Health Services’ Alcohol & Other Drugs Services program. “We need to make sure youth and their parents understand the risks associated with drinking alcopops. Youth are our most precious resource, and we should support policy strategies that prevent access by youth.”
The findings also show that electronic cigarettes are widely available in Contra Costa. Nearly 52% of stores in Contra Costa sell e-cigarettes, battery-operated products that turn nicotine and other chemicals into a vapor that is inhaled by the user. Statewide, the number of stores selling e-cigarettes quadrupled in the last two years, from 11.5% in 2011 to 45.7% in 2013.
Dr. Brunner said the rising availability of e-cigarettes is concerning because “they can be a gateway for youth to move on to smoking.”
In response to concern from local public health officials, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors voted last year to ban the use of electronic cigarettes at all places where smoking is prohibited, and require retailers of electronic cigarette retailers to purchase a tobacco retailer license.
Dr. Brunner said policymakers in Contra Costa and elsewhere should consider additional measures to protect youth and others from unhealthy products. For instance, Dr. Brunner suggested expanding federal rules against flavored cigarettes to apply to other tobacco products such as cigarillos and little cigars. Brunner also said cities can adopt policies to reduce promotion of unhealthy products to youth, including limiting the amount of signage on storefronts.
“The results from this survey clearly points to the need for the community to work together to protect Contra Costa youth from tobacco influences,” said Emily Justice, co-chair of the Contra Costa Tobacco Prevention Coalition. “The Tobacco Prevention Coalition is greatly concerned about the marketing of these products near schools, and will be working with partners to create a healthier and safer Contra Costa.”
For more information on Healthy Stores for a Healthy Community, visit www.HealthyStoresHealthyCommunity.com.
photo credit: Contra Costa County Health Department